Central Asia’s Melting Glaciers Prompt Water Crisis

Even as global warming remains a political football in many Western countries, there are increasing numbers of scientific studies elaborating various aspects of rising temperatures worldwide. While many studies focus on the thinly populated Arctic regions or the desolate Antarctic, glacier melt in Asia has the potential for disrupting human life on a massive scale, as rivers dependent glacier melt flow through densely populated lowlands.

As you might know, the most dangerous thing that is affecting the entire world is the global warming and not only because of the melting glaciers. There are some other problems that global warming will and is causing. In some areas of the world, the global warming causes severe dry seasons that are lasing for few years. For people who are living in these places, this is the worst nightmare because they cannot grow any type of plants or every raises animals for food. Those people have no other choice but to move from their home to a different place where there is water.

One of the latest scientific studies is “Substantial glacier mass loss in the Tien Shan over the past 50 years,” published last month in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience. The study’s researchers based their analysis on data from the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE), a satellite launched in 2002 and the that is jointly operated by NASA and the German Aerospace Center and NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), operated by NASA and launched in 2003. The researchers concluded that glaciers in Central Asia’s Tien Shan Mountains have lost more than a quarter of their total mass over the past 50 years, a rate of loss about four times greater than the global average.
Even more ominously, if current trends continue unchecked, the researchers predicted that by 2050, half of the remaining ice still left in the Tien Shan glaciers could disappear. The researchers postulated that the decline was caused “primarily by summer melt and, possibly, linked to the combined effects of general climatic warming and circulation variability over the north Atlantic and north Pacific.”

These developments carry enormous political consequences for the post-Soviet space, as Central Asian water disputes between the five “Stans” — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — have been slowly worsening since the implosion of the USSR in 1991. All of the five nations depend on scarce regional water reserves both for irrigating their agriculture and providing potable water, and the majority of regional glacial melt freshwater is provided by just two rivers.

Glacier melt is carried by Central Asia’s 1,500-mile Amu Darya and 1,380-mile Syr Darya rivers, which originate in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan before meandering westwards through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to empty into the Aral Sea. The Amu Darya’s headwaters in the form of the Panj River arise in Tajikistan, while the Syr Darya originates in Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan has an abundance of glacier-fed streams and rivers and more than 1,300 natural lakes. Besides river water, Tajikistan also contains many glaciers, of which the 270-square-mile Fedenko glacier is the largest in the world outside the polar regions.

The Amu Darya and Syr Darya water flow, whose combined flow before massive Soviet agricultural projects were implemented equaled the Nile, is unique in that, until 1991, they were part of a single country, the Soviet Union, with water management policy directed by Moscow.

The amount of water taken from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya doubled between 1960 and 2000, allowing cotton production to nearly double in the same period. By the 1980s, nearly 90 percent of water use in Central Asia was directed toward agriculture, primarily cotton production, with the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya supplying nearly 75 percent of the water flow. The rivers together contain more than 90 percent of Central Asia’s available water resources.

Overall, Uzbekistan consumes more than 50 percent of the two rivers’ flow for its cotton production, while in Turkmenistan, the Amu Darya’s waters are used exclusively for agriculture as it flows onward through Uzbekistan to the Aral Sea. Kazakhstan’s water relations with neighboring states are determined by its significant dependence on their river flows, which account for 44 percent of Kazakhstan’s surface water resources.

As the USSR had a centrally planned economy directed from Moscow, the result was to develop industries directed towards benefiting the Union as a whole, rather than its constituent republics. This is nowhere more evident than in Central Asia after authorities in Moscow decided to turn the region into the USSR’s cotton plantation, in order to feed the textile industry that began to spring up around Moscow.

The dolorous effects of this decision continue to reverberate to this day, more than two decades after the fall of the USSR, as the five “Stans” – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan spar over the region’s most precious yet increasingly rare resource – water. While regional coordination efforts to develop equitable water policies began soon after the fragmentation of the USSR, issues about water usage continue to impact relational relations, often for the worse.

Following independence, Central Asian leaders recognized the problem of developing a new, post-Soviet regional water policy; in 1993 the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek presidents established the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination to harmonize their water policies. But while the ICWC has since held more than 50 meetings, little has been accomplished; in the ensuing vacuum, each nation has increasingly developed nationalist policies, often to the detriment of its neighbors.

Tensions are worsened by the fact that resource-poor upstream states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan see part of their future economic salvation in the form of electricity exports to neighboring countries, leading both to construct more hydroelectric barrages on their watercourse – alienating downstream neighbors Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, who depend on regular water discharges during the spring and summer months for their agriculture. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are increasingly releasing water from their reservoirs during the autumn and winter to generate electricity, causing downstream flooding.

At a seminar in Dushanbe on November 11, Uzbekistan’s Environmental Protection State Committee specialist Muhammadzhon Hojayev proposed collaborating with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to conduct aerial survey studies of glacier melt in the Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges to assess the problem, as the last aerial surveys were done 14 years ago. The problem is accelerating; UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia Deputy Head Fedor Klimchuk told seminar participants, “The main reason of glaciers melting is climate warming and man-induced factors. Glaciologists say glaciers may disappear by the end of this century.”

A diplomatic solution exists – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1997 after 27 years of negotiation, whose Article 5 states, “Watercourse States shall in their respective territories utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner.” While Uzbekistan has ratified the convention, it is the only Central Asian country to do so.

What is certain is that Central Asian states must develop coordinated policies to address water issues. Afghanistan will soon further complicate the picture; in March, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told the Council on Foreign Relations, “We are the source, the headwater source for all our neighbors, but only 10 percent of our water is utilized. As a result, we face a cycle of droughts and floods. Floods alone cost us a billion (dollars) a year. Harnessing this water is the critical driver now of bringing prosperity to agriculture and the value chains.” When Afghanistan begins significant diversions of water for its own needs, regional tensions will be further exacerbated.

While a long-term solution remains unclear, post-Soviet Central Asia can nonetheless take some steps to ameliorate the situation. These include: swapping out water-thirsty crops for less demanding ones; improve irrigation efficiency by lining canals and ditches to reduce seepage and introduce conservation techniques. Energy cash-rich Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan can also use some of their hydrocarbon wealth to invest in desalinization plants on their Caspian shores.

Finally, the post-Soviet Central Asian nations can stop treating water issues as purely national issues by embracing existing diplomatic legislation, including the United Nations Convention on International Watercourses. What is certain is that scientific research provides a compelling case that snowpack in the Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges will not replenish anytime soon. With the environmental catastrophe of the destruction of the Aral Sea an example of ignoring nature’s consequences for man’s behavior, regional leaders should put aside petty national differences to work for the common good, as once the glaciers are gone – they’re gone.